24 March 2005

Education's Role

After yesterday's brilliant posting on the Government's Role as defined in My scintillating "Puerto Rico: Online or Flatline" essay, The Jenius now presents Part II, Education's Role:

Closely related and central in the overall transition to a knowledge economy is Education, the department and concept. And here, the realistic approach leads to having the focus be on information management as the guiding concept. As already discussed, knowledge requires an active process that takes data, places it into context and extracts basic principles and new relationships. Both of these end results have their own processes and they date back to antiquity:

The derivation of basic principles from a body of information is called logic.

The discovery of new relationships in information is called science.

I have deliberately chosen simplistic definitions to prove a point: Neither of these words is bandied about very much in any discussion of current curricula. And yet these are exactly the words that should be at the forefront of educational reform.

For decades, we have tolerated an educational system that rewards short-term memory while punishing (or severely condemning) creativity and curiosity. Our students are force-fed data and they essentially spew it back on test day. “Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico during his second voyage in 1493.” That’s probably known by almost everyone who went to school in Puerto Rico. Now here’s the defining difference: Why?

Why did Columbus discover Puerto Rico in 1493 and not 1492? Why did Columbus make the trip in 1492 and not, say, 1489? And wasn’t Columbus Italian? Why did he “discover” the “New World” for Spain? When it comes to “who, what, when and where”, our students may not be well-served, but they are at least covered. But when it comes to “how and why”, the heart of knowledge, our students are left out in the cold. Of what use is it to be filled with data that loses its meaning once the test is handed in? What is missing?

The ability to see and evaluate relationships. We have taught our students almost in a vacuum and deprived them of the one basic tool they all need, by focusing on:

“So-and-so was born in this year.”
“Such-and-such happened on such date.”
“So-and-so did this.”
“Do it this way because this is the way it will appear on the test.”
“It’s in the book.” (Most of which are outdated and mediocre.)

Without the ability to see and evaluate relationships there can be no truly smooth path to learning. Without it, we have the familiar spectacle of students “cramming”, and those with less energy, memory or scruples spend more time finding ways to cheat than it would take them to actually learn the material. The ability to learn, to be autodidactic, to essentially be able to teach one’s self, is not an ability our educational system fosters. And self-learning is exactly the ability needed to step into the global knowledge economy.

It starts in childhood with logic and science. If this sounds difficult it’s because our system has shied away from it and created a bugaboo where none should exist. (Parenthetically, do bugaboos need to exist anywhere?) Logic has the power to derive sense from confusion, to pierce through the haze of excess and derive the basic laws of the situation and to correlate whether they are applicable to others. Science is the process of observation, accumulation (of data), hypothesis and testing, repeated until a solidly reliable result is obtained. Science derives its power from the systematic search for relationships and lest one think solely of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics, everything we learn from infancy onward is a process of establishing relationships between concepts. And logic is nothing but a rigurous application of what we often call “common sense.”

But just as unrefined ore is largely dirt and unannealed iron is useful only as a paperweight, our basic thought processes also need to be refined. That is the task of the educational system, and not at the end, at the postgraduate level, but from the beginning. Furthermore, this is not such a surprising suggestion given that one of the most frequent (and annoying) questions toddlers and pre-schoolers ask is “Why?”

A core curriculum that places greater emphasis on logic and science automatically enhances all other subjects. It makes the study of history come alive, as events cease to be isolated and become part of an unending stream. It improves the ability to study and learn languages because words must be used to define, delineate and discuss concepts. And it makes the study of arts a requirement, one that resides well-supported by the context of learning rather than living as it presently does on the farthest fringe of education, a sort of recess/policy-whim hybrid that benefits no one and may actually be desensitizing our youth to the power of arts.

But to teach basic tools is not enough. What is needed in the knowledge economy is not just “more tools,” but “unique tools.” With the global information flow creating a figuratively level playing field, it is creativity, the ability to see things differently, that has the power and potential to make an enormous impact. Paints, brushes and canvas in my hands are most likely wasted; in the hands of Picasso, they are worth more than gold.

Creativity is not “automatic”, though everyone has it. It emerges as a process of exploration and it reaches full maturity through identity and expression. Expression is easily accomplished, provided one finds the materials and opportunities to do so. But identity, a sense of self that transcends ego, that needs to be nurtured. To have everyone’s identity molded to the same consistency is folly: It drastically reduces the potential for mass creativity, a requirement for national impact on the global economy. (This is not a contradiction of my “power of the individual” stance: “National” impact is the result of multiple individual impacts feeding off of each other.) But even a molded identity is better than no identity. And without an educational system that teaches one about his or her nation’s identity, one is left in a different, possibly more damaging, vacuum.

An education in national identity is not a negation of other national identies: It is the birth of learning more about the world and the peoples within it. If you know who you are, other people and places are adventures; when you don’t know who you are, other people and places are threats. To be Puerto Rican is a unique identity, one we have very little knowledge about. Enhancing our national identity along with a focus on logic and sciences, aside from the basic individual good it provides, also leads to bottom-line economic benefits:

Greater bilingual fluency in the two languages that dominate the Internet.

A unique bicultural viewpoint capable of bridging a hemisphere and reaching across the globe.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

No comments: